Federal government workers whose job involves killing animals to protect crops, livestock and other wildlife in Wyoming are being sued for relying on outdated environmental analyses.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program is the target of a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Wyoming by the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians. Victor, Idaho, resident and Center for Biological Diversity attorney Andrea Santarsiere said she hopes the complaint will force the agency to update its National Environmental Policy Act review of operations in Wyoming, which date to 1998.
“Scientifically speaking, our goal is that they will consider the new science that shows that killing wildlife is often counterproductive to their goals,” Santarsiere told the Jackson Hole Daily. “There are other, more ethical ways of going about the goals of protecting livestock and protecting other wildlife in Wyoming.”
Wildlife Services’ Wyoming office began the process of updating its now-21-year-old plan for operations in 2016, but the document has been stuck in a draft stage since. A similar document authorizing wolf-killing operations was started at the same time, but was never finalized.
Santarsiere said she hasn’t asked about the cause of the holdup, and Mike Foster, the agency’s state director, did not respond to emailed questions citing agency policy about litigation.
The lawsuit describes dramatic changes to the intensity of predator killing in Wyoming since National Environmental Policy Act plans were last updated.
Wildlife Service data shows that in 2017 federal workers killed 5,645 coyotes, 52 wolves, 237 foxes, 1,023 ravens and 305 rabbits in Wyoming. In total, Wildlife Services killed 20,604 animals that year, according to the lawsuit, a 325 percent jump from the 6,293 animals that were killed when plans were last approved in 1996.
There were large jumps in wildlife killing on a species level, the lawsuit contends. From 1993 to 1996, Wildlife Services slayed a total of 30 ravens in Wyoming, which increased to 655 ravens annually when averaging numbers from 2010 to 2014. Coyote killing intensity more than doubled during the same timespan. Wildlife Services’ old plans show that 74 raccoons were killed in 1995; now more than 2,000 are dispatched annually. Skunk killings rose from a handful per year to 500 on average, and the agency went from killing 18 badgers in the state to an annual average of 65 today.
Wildlife Services’ footprint in Jackson Hole is minimal, and the agency does not contract with a county-level predator board like it does in much of Wyoming. Its employees, however, do handle wolf-killing operations locally when packs get into ranchers’ cattle.
The essence of the environmental groups’ legal argument is that the National Environmental Policy Act demands that plans authorizing federal actions be updated when significant new information or circumstances emerge.
The Center for Biological Diversity has waged similar legal wars in Idaho, Colorado and Oregon, Santarsiere said.
“We got a win in Idaho,” she said, “and in Colorado got a settlement with restrictions on what Wildlife Service could do in the interim until they put out a final environmental assessment.”
Once the final Colorado environmental assessment was completed, the Center for Biological Diversity sued over that document’s conclusions, too.